Ron Atkinson has always been worth listening to whenever he talks about the game of football. Successful spells at a host of clubs including Manchester United, Sheffield Wednesday and Aston Villa, meant that he left a legacy which many fans still talk about to this day.
Having spent over 24 years as a pundit for ITV and Sky, Atkinson became a household name in many living rooms throughout the UK and in his new book, the man from Liverpool gives his usual uncompromising view of the game past, present and future.
On a cold December lunchtime, STEVE MITCHELL caught up with the man himself at Birmingham Airport before he jetted off to Dublin on another book signing expedition:
So the obvious question Ron is why the new book?
Well the publishers approached me and said that since my last book there have been so many changes in football and because I had been there or thereabouts, would I like to talk about the changes and expand on what has happened in the past.
If we go right back to the start, I get the impression having read the book that your early days as a player at Oxford United were some of the happiest of your career.
They were great times because there was a gang of lads who the manager signed at the same time and I guess 7 or 8 of us stuck together for many seasons. In this time we became a league club and caused a few upsets in the FA Cup and we all loved living in the city.
So was going into management something you always considered?
We used to go on coaching courses during the summer for something to do. I think I’d got my qualification by the time I was 22. Then I used to travel around the county coaching local teams like Witney Town but I have to be honest and say I never intended to go into management. In fact I was working in sales whilst I was at Oxford United and was offered full-time employment as a sales rep. Then John Nash of Kettering got in touch and finally talked me into taking the job but not before I’d called my dad to ask for his advice. He said that if I didn’t give it a go how would I know if I liked it or not.
You mention in the book that John Bond was an early influence on your career as a coach.
That’s right. When I was boss at Cambridge and he was coaching Norwich I used to go over and look at his training sessions. We got to know each other quite well and then of course he was at Manchester City when I was at United so there was lots of, let’s say, friendly rivalry flying about.
Having watched documentaries about you and after reading the book, it’s clear you had a special relationship with Bryan Robson. Would you say he’s the best player you’ve managed?
Without doubt, for me he’s one of the all-time greats. I’ve worked with players like Paulo Futre at Atletico Madrid and Paul McGrath at United and Aston Villa (who I still maintain is the best defender of the Premier League era). Robbo, however, was the complete player for both club and country. You only have to ask United fans for their all-time XI and Robson is in most of them.
Do you think if he’d stayed fitter you could have won United the league title?
I think so yes. In 1983-84 we were 10 points clear of Liverpool at one point but then Robson got injured in training before the Cup Winners Cup semi-final against Juventus, right outside my office window at The Cliff in front of the Italian press!”
What about his market-value by today’s standards?
Well if you use Paul Pogba as the yardstick, when I brought him to Old Trafford then I’m sure he would have been the first £100 million player”.
If we look at the modern England team, have you seen anyone who reminds you of Robson?
I’d have to say Steven Gerrard. He was similar in that he’s a box to box player.
Tell me about the famous night in 1984 against Barcelona in the Cup Winners Cup quarter-final second leg.
I remember Chairman Martin Edwards coming up to me on the morning of the game and saying to me “Ron, you’ll hear a special atmosphere tonight”. I don’t know why he said it but he was right. Funny thing is, if you watch the game with the sound turned down it’s a pretty ordinary match.
When you watch the game, the Barcelona team (who were 2-0 up after the first leg) looked petrified wouldn’t you agree?
Funnily enough, and I can’t remember who said this, but I was told that they didn’t fancy defending corners so we worked on this and if you look at the game (which United won 3-0) two of our goals came from corners.
Staying with Barcelona, is it true that you almost went to the Camp Nou as coach?
My name was mentioned because the Barcelona President Gaspart was obsessed with bringing in an English manager. They actually asked Bobby Robson what he thought and he told them that I would only be using their interest to get an improved deal at Old Trafford. He actually told a mate of mine that he regretted saying that.
Still, you did go to Spain in the end to coach Atletico Madrid with the legendary Jesus Gil as the President. How was the experience?
We called him “Mad Max” but the irony of it is that I never had a single crossed word with him in the time I was there. Every time we had a meeting he would actually make me laugh. I remember when we lost to Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in the final minute, we went to this restaurant in town and Gil got up and gave this great speech that reduced some player to tears. He also left me to pay the bill!
A quick look at some of the Chairmen you’ve worked under such as Doug Ellis at Aston Villa, Martin Edwards at United; how do you handle working with people like that who can be unpredictable?
First of all, I never got involved with the politics of the club. I know certain managers who want to get involved with everything. Not me, I just concentrate on the team. I got on really well with Doug (Ellis). He wasn’t my type of person, I’ll be honest, but as a Chairman; if you could make a reasonable case for bringing in a player he would back you all the way. What I did have a problem with is when they wanted to get involved in the football side or in transfer dealings.
Let’s stay with Aston Villa. Its obvious reading your book that your heart is still in the club. What in your opinion has gone wrong at Villa Park?
Like a lot of clubs, Villa are a prime example of bad recruitment. They’ve had people in the club over the past few years who are more concerned with statistics and looking at spreadsheets. When you recruit players, statistics only tell half the story. Take Schweinsteiger for example; now if you looked at his stats over the past two years they wouldn’t make great reading but that’s because he’s hardly played. He is still a world class talent but not on a laptop. You should never buy players without going to see them in the flesh.
I want to talk about another player that comes in for glowing praise in the book; Roland Nilsson.
Oh Roland was fantastic. I was in Sheffield yesterday and everyone still talks to me about him. He was immaculate both on and off the pitch and could turn his hand to anything. When he played tennis he was the spitting image of Stefan Edberg.
If we move on to the modern day manager, you state in the book that Arsene Wenger has been the most influential coach of the Premier League era.
He changed the philosophy of an entire football club when he arrived at Arsenal. At that time under George Graham, they were just a step up from Wimbledon in their style of play. I don’t buy into all this stuff about how he changed the diets of players though. I had a fitness coach at Sheffield Wednesday but it didn’t help us to put the ball into the back of the net. Football has always had fads; at West Brom it was steak before a game, then chicken. Later on pasta became fashionable.
Another thing Wenger had in his favour was that he didn’t have to work on the defence, that was all in place for him and as you know, all good teams are built from the back and he had the best back-four in the country at the time. Also, he had the advantage of knowing the French market and could get players in on the cheap like Patrick Viera, Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka.
So what’s your opinion of Mourinho?
Look, I’m a big Mourinho fan but something’s happened. I honestly think that he thought he would inherit a better team than the one he’s got. I have to say, however, that he’s had some terrible luck since he came in. Look at Sunday (the 1-1 draw at Everton) was it a penalty? I’m not so sure. I think Fellaini was trying to stay out of the challenge. I think he’ll get it right but it will take time, longer than Mourinho thought anyway. What they are doing better is they’re playing with more pace this season. Under Louis van Gaal I used to fall asleep watching them play!
You always had a reputation for pulling out surprise victories in big games. Three spring to mind immediately, The FA Cup Final 1985, Rumbelows Cup Final in 91 and League Cup Final in 94. What was the secret to that success?
I couldn’t really put my finger on one thing. I mean when United used to play Liverpool those games were ferocious. If you wanted to win the league in those days you normally had to beat the European Champions.
What would you say was your proudest moment as a coach?
The Barcelona game was special but the most exciting game I’ve ever been involved in was the ’94 League Cup semi-final with Villa against Tranmere Rovers. We were 3-0 down at their place in the first-leg before Dalian Atkinson got one back in injury-time. Honestly, you’d have thought we’d won the bloody thing when we got back to the dressing-room. In the second-leg we went two up then they scored again, before Dalian Atkinson grabbed a third late on again. It went to penalties which we finally won 5-4. It was a cracking tie.
Were you ever close to getting the England job?
Let’s put it this way, I was asked about it after Graham Taylor got sacked but I never went chasing it. To be quite honest, like most managers, I preferred the day to day coaching at a club and when Terry Venables got the job, he was lucky because he was out on a limb after the problems with Alan Sugar.
What about the current England boss?
Ironically, I think it will suit Gareth Southgate as he’s not had experience coaching a club side. When it came up in the summer I always thought it was between Sam Allardyce and Steve Bruce. If Sam had rejected it Brucie would have got it in my opinion. But then he goes to Aston Villa and I don’t think Gareth would have even been considered for that job. I think he’s a good choice as he’s English, although I thought Glenn Hoddle may have been in with a chance again this time. He took the job too early first time around and although he’s a great coach, his man-management skills leave a lot to be desired.
So let’s talk about modern day football presentation on television. I would like to know what you think about it.
Firstly, they all talk too much. I mean sometimes I don’t know who the actual commentators are. Take BT for instance, now we tried to use three commentators way back when I worked with someone I consider to be way ahead of his time in how sport should be covered, Paul Doherty. It was a game at Manchester City and we had two co-commentators with Martin Tyler, me and John Sillett. At the end of the match I just looked at Paul and we both said; “Didn’t work did it?”
Everybody tries to have their say and if you’re watching on television, you can see what’s happened; you don’t have to be told all the time. I remember when I first started, Paul used to say to me; “I don’t want you telling me something I’ve just seen”.
So finally, could you single out any of the modern day pundits you enjoy listening to?
If I had to pick one co-commentator who I think is really good then I would pick Don Goodman. But Don’s not got the profile Sky want to work on the top games.
STEVE MITCHELL – @barafundler